Issues of Racial Identity in Pudd'nhead Wilson and The House Behind the Cedars

    Mark Twain’s Pudd'nhead Wilson and Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars both address the categorization of individuals of mixed race within a socially constructed binary system of black and white, questioning the rational behind positioning individuals who are mostly white within the social category of "black." Twain explores the construction of race and the effect of environment on the individual in Pudd'nhead Wilson by exchanging two nearly identical infants, one "white" and the other "black." In The House Behind the Cedars, Chesnutt moves a young "black" woman who is physically indistinguishable from a white woman from her hometown in which she is inescapably labeled "black" and places her in an environment in which her Anglo features and associations lead others to identify her as white to illustrate a similar point, that race is a socially constructed, arbitrarily applied classification unfairly applied to people of mixed ancestry. Chesnutt’s attempt to show that individuals of mixed race should not be relegated to the dark side of the color line seem more successful; because Twain’s argument that the environment, not genetics, forms the individual appears to fall apart when he depicts the "black" child raised in a environment of wealth and privilege as abusive and the "white" child raised as a slaves as kind and generous. A comparison between these two novels illustrates the endurance of the ideology behind the "one drop rule" which ordains that one drop of black blood permanently categorizes the individual as black. Chesnutt directly challenges this rule advocating to ask readers to reevaluate the delimiters of racial categories while Twain employs it in a satirical fashion to prompt readers to think of character as individually determined rather than racially determined.

    At the beginning of Pudd'nhead Wilson, when the two babies, one "white" and one "black," are born, they are virtually indistinguishable to everybody but Roxana. They are so alike that even Percy Driscoll, the father of one, can only tell them apart by their clothing and yet one is the "master" and the other is the "slave." The description of Roxana and her son illustrate the illogical labeling of race: "To all intents and purposes Roxy was a white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts, and made her a Negro. She was a slave and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro" (Puddinhead Wilson, 29). In calling the designation of individuals whose ancestral breakdown shows only a very small fraction of black blood and who cannot be physically distinguished from "real" white people, as "black" a "fiction," this novel advances the idea that racial difference is just a societal fabrication that attempts to differentiate people in terms of distinctions that do not really exist. The idea that there is no difference between the "white" Tom and the "black" Chambers that the ease of the swap proposes seems to be undermined by the fact that the "black" Tom is cruel, abusive, dishonest, dishonorable and cowardly. He is a "bad baby from the very beginning of his usurpation" (Pudd'nhead Wilson, 39-40), and even as a child he exhibits a "natural viciousness" (Pudd'nhead Wilson, 43). These descriptions imply that the "black" Tom’s disagreeable character is somehow an essential, inborn component of his nature. The fact that he is the "black" twin might lead to the conclusion that his black blood is responsible for his repugnant qualities.

    To fully understand what I believe to be Twains satirical intention in making the "black" Tom so bad, one must consider the portrayal of the people in the novel who attribute character to blood. Judge Driscoll is appalled that Tom who is "of the best blood of the Dominion" (Pudd'nhead Wilson, 95) would appeal to the law instead of challenging Luigi to a duel as tradition demands. Driscoll’s dedication to the honor of the "F.F.V" (The First Families of Virginia) and his exaggerated reaction to Tom’s legal recourse instead of an obviously imbecilic duel characterize him as something of a fool; therefore, his reliance on blood as an indicator of character should be somewhat suspect. Another person who attributes Tom’s bad behavior to blood is Roxana who, in the following dialogue, also chastises Tom for not risking his life and the lives of others in a silly duel for honor: " ‘It’s de nigger in you, dat’s what it is. Thirty-one parts o’ you is white, en on’y one part nigger, en dat po’ little one part is yo soul’ " (Pudd'nhead Wilson, 109). Roxana’s opinions are also questionable; for she advocates the same senseless duel as Driscoll, and she is not a free thinking character in the novel. She has internalized the negative stereotypes attributed to black people and thinks that white people can do no wrong. She justifies switching the babies by telling herself that white people have done the same thing: " ‘ ‘Tain’t no sin—white folks has done it! It ain’t no sin, glory to goodness, it ain’t no sin! Dey’s done it—yes, en dey was de biggest quality in the whole bilin’, too—kings!’ " (Pudd'nhead Wilson, 36). Her opinions on the correlation between blood and character are not intended to be taken seriously, because she, like Driscoll, has been indoctrinated by the bloodline tradition of the South. Neither Roxana nor Driscoll are reliable commentators on the relationship between ancestry and disposition, but the narrator can be viewed as providing a somewhat dependable perspective in the passage that describes Tom’s reaction to the news that he is Roxana’s child and not the Driscoll heir. His initial change in character is ascribed to the "nigger" in him: "It was the ‘nigger’ in him asserting its humility, and he blushed and was abashed. And the ‘nigger’ in him was surprised when the white friend put out his had for a shake with him. He found the ‘nigger’ in him involuntarily giving the road, on the sidewalk, to the white rowdy and loafer" (Pudd'nhead Wilson, 75). Apparently, the black blood in him makes him humble and subordinate, not abusive and cruel. The fact that his character reverts back to its old form implies that there is no connection between his character and his racial identity: "He dropped gradually back into his old frivolous and easygoing ways and conditions of feeling and manner of speech, and no familiar of his could have detected anything in him that differentiated him from the weak and careless Tom of other days" (Pud'inhead Wilson, 76-7). The sarcastic way in which Tom’s change in character is presented as produced by "the nigger in him" implies that race is a figment of the mind. There is no "nigger" in Tom, no essential racial element that determines his behavior.

    Whatever personal characteristics Tom exhibits, good or bad, are derived from his own individual nature, not from membership in a racial group. The conclusion of the novel speaks to this notion of individuality. The fingerprints that Pudd'nhead Wilson uses to irrefutably determine the identity of Driscoll’s murderer are the products of individuals not groups: "Every human being carries with him from his cradle to his grave certain physical marks which do not change their character, and by which he can always be identified—and that without shade of doubt or question. These marks are his signature…this signature is each man’s very own—there is no duplicate of it among the swarming populations of the globe!" (Pudd'nhead Wilson, 158). If fingerprints map one-to-one to identities, and each individual’s fingerprint is unique, then each individual’s identity is unique as well. Hence, one’s "blood" or racial composition is irrelevant as is any fixed categorization based on it.

    The problem with satire is that readers can very easily miss the point. Satire is a very indirect, ambiguous form of interaction between writer and reader. In fact, in a way, satire validates the very subject it seeks to invalidate by allowing the reader to interpret it in whatever way he or she chooses. Chesnutt’s more direct approach in The House Behind the Cedars clearly articulates his views so the reader is left with little doubt as to his intentions. In his portrayal of Rena Walden, Chesnutt illustrates the way in which environment alone determines racial identity. As soon as Rena steps onto the steamer that carries her away from Patesvillle, she becomes white in the eyes of those around her. The very first person Rena encounters on the boat, the stewardess, thinks that she is white. It is Patesville that makes Rena black. Whenever she is outside of Patesville, her white identity is never questioned, but when she returns to Patesville to nurse her ailing mother, her identity is immediately disclosed to George Tryon, her white fiance, and she once again becomes "a cullud ‘oman" (Cedars, 99). Toward the end of the novel, when Rena decides to accept the black identity while traveling outside of Patesville, her ethnic origins must be explained to people who see her with black people but assume from her appearance that she is white. These constant reminders that Rena does not look like she has any black blood reinforce Chesnutt’s message that only the social norms of Patesville define Rena as black.

    The issue of character and blood is also addressed in The House Behind the Cedars, but in a much more explicit manner than in Pudd'nhead Wilson. After George recovers from the initial shock of discovering Rena’s secret, he returns to Patesville to talk to her and is shocked to find her dancing with Jeff Wain. The following passage illustrates the common ideas about blood and character that George comes to share:

"To-night his eyes had been opened—he had seen her with the mask thrown off, a true daughter of a race in which the sensuous enjoyment of the moment took precedence of taste or sentiment or any of the higher emotions. Her few months of boarding-school, her brief

association with white people, had evidently been a mere veneer over the underlying negro, and their effects had slipped away as soon as the intercourse had ceased…What more, indeed, he asked himself savagely,—what more could be expected of the base-born child of a plaything of a gentleman’s idle hour, who to this ignoble origin added the blood of a servile race?" (Cedars, 150).

This sentiment is based upon George’s interpretation of the party scene he comes upon in his search for Rena. The reader knows, however, George’s analysis of the situation to be completely erroneous. Rena has been pining away for him since he left her fainted in the street; she does not want to dance with Wain, and it is only coincidence that George arrives just as she finally acquiesces to one dance with Wain. The reader’s knowledge that the basis of George’s conclusion that Rena’s "white" identity was merely a façade hiding her real "black" self completely upsets the conclusion itself. In other words, Rena really is who she appears to be; she is the "white" woman George knew and loved; and there is no "underlying negro."

    Chesnutt’s directness does not allow multiple interpretations of the social purpose of this novel. Unlike Pudd'nhead Wilson, The House Behind the Cedars does not risk addressing the amorphous subject of racial definition with the equally amorphous technique of satire. He could hardly be any clearer if he came right out and asked why Rena and John cannot live as white individuals when they are physically indistinguishable from white people and why they must be excluded from the economic and social benefits of a white identity.


Twain, Mark. Pudd'nhead Wilson. New York: Penguin Books, 1964.

Chesnutt, Charles W. The House Behind the Cedars. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

This page is the work of Carey Ann Kotake.

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